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Winners and Losers in Conference Expansion

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By Jacob Shoor
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The ACC and SEC were huge winners of the recent conference expansions.

Over the past couple of years, several people have made lists of the winners and losers in the conference expansion rat-race. I resisted making such a list largely because I felt that expansion was not over. Now, with the 15 ACC members signing a Grant of Rights as a final measure to show that none of them harbor the slightest desire to go anywhere, which has proven to be the final measure required to move the idea of an ACC network forward, I think I can make my list.

The biggest winner, no doubt whatsoever, of the expansion games is Rutgers. Rutgers has the most miserable football history of any school in the country. Save for one fluke run to the Final Four, Rutgers basketball has been almost as miserable. Rutgers baseball is worse than its basketball. But the Big Ten’s desire to try to keep the ACC and Notre Dame from making New York City their town as far as college sports goes made Rutgers, which is located inside the NYC TV market, luckier than any debt-drowned, barely literate mega lottery winner.

Number two on the winners list is Louisville. Twenty-five years ago almost everybody, sports journalists and general fans included, saw Louisville as a peer of Memphis State. It seems only yesterday that quite a few internet fans, especially WVU fans, were gloating about Louisville being condemned to a dying Big East, which would return its football back to Memphis Tigers level. Now, Louisville is laughing at its detractors. It is replacing Maryland in the ACC, thus gaining Florida State and Clemson as annual football and baseball divisional rivals and giving its already good baseball program the kind of regular season competition it needs to become a perennial post-season threat. Athletics Director Tom Jurich, one of the best in the country, has made certain Louisville has superb facilities for all sports, and soon various Cards non-revenue teams will be seen regularly on the ACC Network. And as for football: expect Louisville to become a consistent competitor with a filled Papa John’s Cardinals Stadium, which will be expanded to top 60,000 before long.

Winner number three is the ACC. Notre Dame, even as a five-eights member of football, is the biggest prize in conference expansion, and now Irish sports are bound to the ACC not only by the largest exit fee in the country but by a Grant of Rights, which was necessary to secure ESPN’s backing for the long discussed ACC Network. ACC football will see both a significant increase in national TV viewers and recruiting boosts due to Notre Dame playing five games annually. The ACC gained full admission to the northeast in adding Pitt and Syracuse, which are two of the three schools in the region with the most football history. Syracuse also has the largest basketball fan base in the northeast. Louisville replacing Maryland is a major upgrade. Last year, Maryland football averaged fewer fans per game than did Boston College, a small Jesuit school that finished 2-10. Louisville, in contrast, averaged more than 50,000 per game and won the Sugar Bowl over Florida. As big as Maryland basketball is, Louisville basketball is bigger, and much more profitable. Terps baseball is to Cards baseball as, well, the AAA Redbirds are to the St. Louis Cardinals: a total and permanent inferior.

The much-joked about Texas A&M Aggies are expansion winner number four. They have gone in one fell swoop from buffooned little brother to the seemingly uncatchable and insufferably arrogant Texas Longhorns all the way to dashing SEC man of means. Freed of being under the Texas shadow, Aggie sports could all blossom.

The SEC completes the big winners list. Nabbing A&M means that SEC teams will begin to recruit the Lone Star State very well, perhaps eventually so well that only Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12 can compete. Keeping Missouri out of the hands of the Big Ten will also pay good long term dividends, and that is true if Mizzou football takes a decade or more to catch up.

Heading the list of expansion losers is UConn. Jim Calhoun made the Huskies one of the premier basketball programs in the country, and Randy Edsall steered the football program from 1AA to a BCS bowl. The women’s basketball program has replaced Tennessee as the nation’s best. The Huskies’ baseball program is solid. But UConn is left out of a major conference. There are two main reasons: (1) CT and New England produce so few major college football players, and only a few more major college basketball players, that the region is a significant recruiting liability to any conference; (2) very small fan base size.

A close second to UConn is Cincinnati. The Bearcat athletics revival began with Bob Huggins and basketball, but it became complete with Mark Dantonio leading the football program to heights undreamed of a decade earlier. Brian Kelly and Butch Jones upped the ante left by Dantonio. Cincy is not as big an expansion loser as UConn because its future is brighter. Cincy is more likely to be invited into the Big 12 or the ACC. That is true not merely because Tommy Tuberville is the current football coach and may be happy to retire there because his wife grew up 30 miles from campus, but more so because OH is loaded with major talent in both revenue sports. There is more football talent in just the Cincinnati TV market (which is smaller than the Columbus and Cleveland markets) than there is in all of New England.

South Florida is number three on my list of expansion losers. If the Big East had survived as a major conference, USF, with an ark full of talent within a three hour drive of campus, would have been well positioned to continue its rise. Now, the odds of the Bulls ever again playing in a major conference are slim to none.

Big Ten football is also a big loser. The Big Ten may become more filthy rich by adding the NYC and Baltimore/DC TV markets, but its football will be watered down even more with Rutgers and Maryland. The only thing that plodding, boring Big Ten football had going for it when compared to the SEC was midwestern traditions, making the league unique. Now it will be the same basic quality, probably slightly depressed, but with even more old Big Ten rivalries disrupted. I guess the Big Ten decided that if you can’t compete with the quality and excitement of Southern football, at least you can try to make more money while being boring and mediocre.

The final big loser in the expansion sweepstakes? That came out a tie. Part one of the tie is Memphis. With a large and passionate basketball fan base (it is much larger than UConn’s, for example) and with FedEX chairman Fred Smith backing its football program and keeping the Liberty Bowl tied to its conference, Memphis in the Big East that retained Major conference status easily could have become a presence, not to be confused with a power, on the national scene. The Tigers will do well in a basketball conference with UConn, Cincy, and Temple, but Memphis football will continue to stagnate.

Part two of the tie? Everybody in the Big 12 not named Texas, with special status for WVU. Texas gets to have a conference it controls virtually 100%, and as extra rich icing on the cake gets its very own school network. The other nine Big 12 members are stuck serving to make Texas happy, because not one of them, not even OU, is able to go anywhere else without Bevo leading. WVU is in the worst position of the nine because it is nearly a thousand miles from its nearest conference mate. And it could get worse for at least six of the nine Longhorn peons: Texas could decide it wants out, which will leave the remaining Big 12 no more powerful than the American Athletic Conference.

Jacob Shoor – Jacob Shoor a Tennessee native and UNC graduate who is now semi-retired and living back in Tennessee after having lived since his UNC days in SWC country and Big 8 country, as well as both SC and NC. Other than ACC sports and SEC football, Jacob Shoor is a fan of the Tour de France, the French Open, and hurling (Ireland’s biggest team sport).

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